ATTORNEY: MICHAEL J. WERNKE
THE POMERANTZ MONITOR, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2014
It has been a little over two months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., reaffirming the “fraud-on-the-market” presumption of class-wide reliance that makes most securities fraud class actions possible. Even in such a short period, we have seen significant developments in this area of the law.
In Halliburton, the Supreme Court declined to create a new requirement that the plaintiff, in order to invoke the fraud on the market presumption, had to demonstrate “price impact” at the class certification stage—i.e., that the misrepresentation actually affected the price of the stock. However, the Court did authorize defendants to try to defeat class certification by submitting “evidence showing that the alleged misrepresentation did not actually affect the stock’s market price.”
Since then, lower federal courts have begun interpreting Halliburton’s impact on current class certification standards. In several cases the courts have concluded that it represents no fundamental change at all, particularly because even before Halliburton, many circuits had already permitted defendants to show the absence of price impact at the class certification stage.
More important are decisions of two courts that have addressed the question of whether Halliburton forecloses the so-called “price maintenance theory.” One textbook example of a fraud-on-the-market claim is that the defendant made misrepresentations that caused the market price of the company’s stock to move up, and that the price came back down only when the truth finally came out. In these cases the “price impact” occurred when the misleading financial information was first released.
The price maintenance theory, on the other hand, comes into play if the alleged fraud did not cause the price of the company’s stock to move up but, instead, prevented it from moving down. This can occur if the company falsely reports that its results are about the same as before, in line with market expectations, when in fact something bad has happened and the true results were really far worse.
Under this theory, the “price impact” of the fraud does not occur at the time of the misrepresentations, but only when the truth finally comes out and the price of the stock drops dramatically. If “price impact” is equated with price movement, and has to occur at the time of the misrepresentations, price maintenance cases – which are legion – will not qualify for the fraud on the market presumption.
The two courts that have ruled on this issue post-Halliburton have both concluded that price maintenance cases can qualify for the fraud on the market presumption. In a case involving Vivendi Universal, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York denied the defendant’s request to make a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law in light of Halliburton, reaffirming the continued viability of the price maintenance theory. The court emphasized that Halliburton made mention of how a plaintiff can prove price impact, but only discussed when a defendant can establish a lack of price impact.
Potentially even more important is a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit in a case against Regions Financial, where the court also affirmed the continued validity of the price maintenance theory. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a finding of fraud on the market always requires proof that the alleged misrepresentations had an “immediate effect” on the stock price. In such situations, the court held, a plaintiff can satisfy the critical “cause and effect” requirement of market efficiency merely by identifying a negative price impact resulting from a corrective disclosure that later revealed the truth of the fraud to the market. The court explained that Halliburton “by no means holds that in every case in which such evidence is presented, the presumption will always be defeated.”
In upholding the price maintenance theory, the court in Regions reaffirmed that, under Halliburton, there is no single mandatory analytical framework for analyzing market efficiency, and district courts have flexibility to make the fact-intensive reliance inquiry on a case-by-case basis. This flexible approach to reliance is a boon to investors because plaintiffs may be able to use various tools to show an efficient market existed—even where there are a few number of traded shares, or where a company is not followed widely by analysts, or where the market is generally accepted to be inefficient.
Beyond its holding, the Eleventh Circuit’s decision can also be viewed optimistically by investors as potentially a first step in courts permitting plaintiffs to establish Basic’s presumption merely through evidence of a corrective disclosure’s price impact on a stock, rather than general market efficiency for the stock. In Halliburton, the Court rejected the “robust” view of market efficiency proposed by Halliburton. The Court emphasized that Basic’s presumption is based on the “fairly modest premise that market professionals generally consider most publicly announced material statements about companies, thereby affecting stock market prices” and that the question of a market’s efficiency is not a yes/no “binary” question, but rather a spectrum analysis:
The markets for some securities are more efficient than the markets for others, and even a single market can process different kinds of information more or less efficiently, depending on how widely the information is disseminated and how easily it is understood. . . Basic recognized that market efficiency is a matter of degree. . .
In permitting defendants to present evidence of no price impact, the Court noted that market efficiency is merely indirect evidence of price impact, and defendants should be able to provide direct evidence of what plaintiffs seek to establish indirectly. Arguably, the door has now been opened for plaintiffs themselves to eschew the indirect method of market efficiency when there is clear evidence of price impact.